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December 18, 2003

Silent Tradition

From: Fresno Neighbors, CA - Dec 18, 2003

Fresno's deaf and hard of hearing get visit with Santa.

By Joshua Tehee

Matthew Kerby-Munoz wants a Lego set from Santa this year. When Santa's Silent Sleigh visited the Air National Guard base last week, he got a chance to tell jolly old St. Nick in person.

Matthew, a 9-year-old third-grader at Garfield Elementary School, was one of 200 deaf and hard of hearing students who got to meet with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The couple greeted the children in the only language some of them knew: sign.

"Some of [these children] have not had that opportunity to sit on Santa's lap," says Pauline Beaton, who works with the deaf and hard of hearing for Fresno Unified School District. "They can't go into a mall and say, 'Hi, I want that,' " she says. Many times their parents have to act as interpreters or they struggle with not being able to understand Santa at all.

That can make for a difficult season.

"The night before Christmas for a kid is probably more important than Christmas day," says Mike Glad, owner of the Valley Midas shops, who helped start the annual event 17 years ago.

Glad's son was born profoundly deaf and for him to sit with Santa was tough. "It wasn't impossible at all. It was just limiting," says Glad, who had to travel to find a Santa who could sign.

Glad decided to bring Santa to those who needed it.

And not just in Fresno.

The Silent Sleigh event has been held in as many as six different cities over the years. This year, the event was held in Sacramento as well as Fresno.

At Silent Sleigh, deaf and hard of hearing students from Fresno, Madera and Clovis unified school districts meet at the Air National Guard base to watch a parade that includes Santa and Mrs. Claus in a horse drawn carriage. Several students even get to ride with the couple.

Excited children, teachers and parents line the roadway as the parade passes, complete with a marching band, several floats built by the Air National Guard and, of course, the Claus family.

Santa waves and gives the sign for "I love you."

The children smile and wave back.

The parade is something the children anticipate each year as December rolls around, says Antonina Cardinalli, who teaches Matthew at Garfield.

At the end of the parade Mr. and Mrs. Claus meet with each of the children to find out what they want in their stocking and hand out stuffed teddy bears.

The event is a collaborative effort between the school districts, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, the 144 Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard and deaf community members.

For several years, Glad personally helped put on the event, until it got to be too much work and he turned it over to the community. The sponsors and event coordinators do a wonderful job of keeping it going every year, says Rod Smith, the operation manager for the Fresno, Clovis and Madera Midas stores.

"It made it so easy to do it here. They just wanted it so much," he says.

But the event is about more than the season and Santa Claus.

Along with the Santa meeting, there is a play put on in sign language.

It's about building the community that surrounds deafness, Glad says.

And that doesn't just include the deaf and hard of hearing. It includes a whole host of parents, siblings, teachers and friends.

There are usually more people who can hear than who cannot at the event, Glad says.

"And why? Because they are involved in the deaf community in some way," he says. That's what's been with him since the beginning, he says. "What was the most important thing is the interaction of people."